Scenes in a new light

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 February, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 February, 1996, 12:00am

GIVE Francis Reid the chance and he would string people to the rafters, put them in boxes and make sure they were never more than 10 metres from the action.

The British-born lighting designer believes good theatre design bonds people together.

'The Italians had people hanging off the wall. You could see them leaning over the railings, elbows out, necks stretched towards the stage. When one person laughed, everyone else did.

'That's what theatre is about: contact between audiences and actors. It's basically a people business.' Reid, a guest of the British Council, was in Hong Kong recently to conduct seminars, workshops and lectures on theatre design at the Academy for Performing Arts (APA).

Modern, all-purpose theatres are usually designed after sprawling commercial cinemas.

Although they afford every movie-goer a good view at a fair price, the distance from the stage to the seats severs contact between actors and audience.

'If you sit in a 2,000-seat theatre, you might as well sit in front of a television.

'Ask any actor. They can't stand playing in the new theatres, but prefer the old ones. And they love audiences falling on them.' Reid heaped praise on the Tricycle Theatre in London, Glyndebourne, Seoul's Arts Centre with its five performance venues, and the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds with its two theatres (a Greek-style venue and a courtyard).

It is also 'the best pub in Leeds. That theatre buzzes with life all day'.

He rates the Academy for Performing Arts in Hong Kong and the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal as the best schools in the world for theatre technology.

Hardly a stranger to Hong Kong, Reid served as the APA's acting dean in 1992-93.

He describes himself as a 'theatre user' and, contrary to what one would expect, he has never acted.

He shrugs off his professional achievements as 'being part of the support troops that help actors'. He crisscrosses the globe to help his colleagues and sort out problems where needed.

'Other than that I'd rather sit in the audience.' He has spent more than four decades honing his skills as a lighting technician, stage manager and administrator. He has designed lighting for more than 300 productions. Name your favourite - Man of La Mancha, Grease, Shakespeare, operas and pantomimes - he's done it.

'I've done a good job when there are 120 lighting changes and no one noticed.' His visit to Hong Kong opened a fascinating exhibition - Making Space for Theatre: Forty Years of British Theatre Architecture in the foyer of the Academy for Performing Arts (ends March 17).

During a slide presentation and lecture Reid, perched on an office chair and spotlighted against a black stage, encouraged theatre designers and students to study the past in order to look to the future.

'The Italians, the Spaniards, those of court theatre had the right idea.

'The Italian opera houses hung the audience on the wall. They seated people in boxes. The idea defies modern theatre design. But it captures the spirit of communication.

'The French say that the audience assists. You become a part by congealing. When you see faces laughing, everyone laughs. You're not isolated.' He says that after a fire at London's Tricycle Theatre, it was rebuilt to the original design - shallow balconies and people close together. 'The Tricycle is basically scaffolding, canvas and wood. But the audience connect with each other and the actors. You can smell people. It is part of the experience.' Reid challenges designers to create an atmosphere that will nurture this fusion.

'If you have a balcony with only two rows, you have contact with the stage. When designers made the balconies deeper, you lost it.' He blames the super cinemas of this century for dehumanising going to the theatre.

Theatre-in-the-round, however, gets his approval. 'People are close to the action, they can see and feel the light and pulsations. But it doesn't work for every type of production.

'An audience also wants scenery and an environment. There is a limit to how far a stage can be thrust into an audience.

'A well-designed theatre must say, 'come hither' to people; not, 'come in, if you dare'.

He is relieved to see the demise of the totally black theatre and welcomes the use of wood and scaffolding. He urged Hong Kong designers to liberate themselves from orthodox theatre design.

'Take some of those old godowns and turn them into theatres. A theatre can be any space, including an old brewery.

'I used to think black was neutral. And regarded it is as the 'mystical exchange of the black box'.

'But then you learn. Just try a comedy in a black theatre. And you have comedies when no one laughed.' Another lament is the use of concrete in the modern theatre.

'If you wanted to modify an old theatre, you just called a carpenter. With a modern theatre, you have to send for the demolition team.' He encourages designers to embrace technology and exploit it for the benefit of the audience, not the ticket office.

'Any space can be a theatre. All you need is two planks and a passion.

'But then, success changes that. You begin with an actor and an audience, and the audience needs to see him. So you raise the actor.

'Then you are so successful, you get more audience, and you have to raise part of it. And you become more successful.

'Then the actor needs a changing room. And the audience needs a ticket booth. And today, they need a bar. And then, a room for technicians.

'So, that's how theatre design evolved.' Reid says he is ready to pass the challenge of modern technology, computers and theatre design debate and philosophy to a younger generation.

Retirement looms. And he has lots to do at his home in Norwich which he shares with his wife of 39 years (his former stage manager).

'I will not be silent, but I will shut up. And I do have 40 years of reading to catch up on.'